HE’S KEENELY INTERESTED IN L.A.'S TRAFFIC AND WEATHER
As a traffic reporter and weather forecaster, Bill Keene isn’t in the habit of looking back. But when prodded to survey his checkered life and long career, one thing becomes clear: There’s much more to Bill Keene than meets the ear.
With his on-the-air bent for groan-inducing puns and a raspy, mischievous voice, Keene has been a fixture on all-news KNX (AM 1070), delivering drive-time traffic and weather reports for 10 years.
As weatherman on KNXT (now KCBS) Channel 2’s “The Big News,” the city’s top-rated newscast from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, he was among Southern California’s leading TV personalities. He even hosted a daytime variety show called, straightforwardly, “Keene at Noon.”
“You could hardly turn on Channel 2 that I wasn’t there,” he said at KNX’s Sunset Boulevard offices. That ended when he was fired in a 1974 management shakeup. Along with his bitter professional memories come pieces of his personal struggles: a long bout with the bottle, three failed marriages and nagging doubts about missed opportunities. And in January, 1985, came one of the biggest ironies in his career: He was rehired by KCBS to give traffic reports three times a day.
Why did he go back to work for the television station that fired him? New management. “It was a whole new ballgame,” Keene said.
Keene’s firing foreshadowed the dismantling of “The Big News,” which, in the early 1960s, was one of the nation’s first news shows to expand to an hourlong format. Coincidentally, it was Keene who had gone to the airport to meet Channel 2’s new recruit from Milwaukee, a young reporter named Jerry Dunphy, who soon was promoted to anchor position. Along with sports announcer Gil Stratton, Dunphy and Keene formed “The Big News” team.
The KNXT shake-up not only cost Keene his job but the station its ratings leadership for news, and eventually Dunphy, Southern California’s most popular news anchor. Dunphy, now at KABC Channel 7, remembered “The Big News” as “the most-watched TV news program in the U.S.” and Keene as “a walking weather almanac.”
Nervously pumping one leg as he sat chain-smoking, Keene, 59, recalled the inglorious affair--a memory he has never come to terms with.
“It was a blow. A tremendous, tremendous blow to my self-confidence. All of a sudden you say, ‘What did I do?’ Because there was no reason. If they had said, ‘You screwed up,’ or ‘People weren’t watching,’ or something . . . . “
The last thing Keene expected was to lose his job. He claimed that the new manager had, shortly before, considered him as a potential news anchor. Worse yet, the ax fell when Keene was on a mobile-home vacation near Palmdale. He called it “maybe the worst way to get canned in the world.”
Weather always has been like a hobby to Keene, who follows developments even on his time off. On that particular vacation, he learned through “weather spies"--United Airlines pilots in this case--of a severe thunderstorm heading for the Coast from Hawaii. He offered to cut short his holiday to report on the brewing storm.
Forget the weather story, he was told, but come back to the station anyway. Then-news director Bill Eames had a serious matter to discuss. But the matter seemed beyond discussion when Eames handed Keene a severance check. In a cost-cutting move, he was informed, the station would switch to weather slides.
Keene was floored. And he described his response to Eames as bitter.
Meanwhile, the storm Keene had been tipped to was raging outside. “It was a pea-cutter of a storm, too, and they didn’t have a word about it on the air.”
Shattered by the first firing of his career, Keene left the building where he had spent “half of my damn life,” and walked out into the rain he had forecasted. He drove home, dropped the bad news on his wife, and took a call from Dunphy, who extended condolences and a dinner invitation.
“I’ll never forget ol’ Dunph for that,” Keene said. “We went out and ate and laughed and giggled and scratched. And six months later, it was his turn.”
Like Dunphy, Keene started on small-town radio. But unlike Dunphy, Keene’s career after the firings took a turn for the worse.
“My first reaction was: ‘I’ll walk down the street and get a job.’ ” But he refused to audition for another network station. “I probably missed the biggest chance of my career. It was just dumb pride.”
He finally accepted an offer at independent KTLA Channel 5. “This is a terrible thing to say,” Keene said, “but when I walked into Channel 5’s studio, I’d have liked to die. It reminded me of the very first TV station I had ever seen in my life. I mean primitive . I guess I really deflated at that moment. And I said, ‘Is this where old elephants go to die?’ ”
Keene remained unhappily at KTLA for six months. He kept broadcasting weather reports for KNX radio, however, where general manager George Nicholau was “the only thing that stayed solid” during Keene’s crisis.
Meanwhile, back at KNXT, Keene said, management eventually chucked its weather slides for something really visual--a weatherwoman. For him, it was salt in the wound.
During his years at KNXT, Keene had hosted the aforementioned variety/talk show, “Keene at Noon.” (It did not make broadcast history. It did, however, yield the longest-running of Keene’s four marriages, his current one of 18 years to singer Louise Vienna, who hit it off with her host and was invited for the ultimate return engagement. She did one of her final guest spots while pregnant with their first child. She is now retired.)
Keene now prizes the “anonymity of radio”: “See, I took the hairpiece off when I got out of TV. The old hair went in the closet and it’s still there gettin’ gray all by itself.”
“And besides, I love radio. It’s my media.”
After 10 years of grinding out traffic and weather reports every 10 minutes, seven hours a day, can Keene possibly still enjoy his work?
“Yeah, I’m still excited. I have fun doing this dumb job, believe it or not. . . . I’ll go on vacation and come Thursday I’ll be climbing the walls. I miss what I’m doing. I’ve got scanners at home, and if I were through reporting traffic tomorrow, I’d probably go into my little old closet there at home and listen to my scanners anyway.”
There was a time in Keene’s life when he stumbled, either boozed-up or hung over, into his closet-turned-broadcast-booth to send out his weather reports for the station. Resembling the comically tipsy W. C. Fields with his bulbous nose, reddish complexion, prominent paunch and world-weary wit, Keene cracks that he bought his current Tarzana home for its proximity to a favorite neighborhood bar “so I could crawl home, if need be.”
Keene linked his drinking problems to the rigors of daily broadcast journalism: “That is a man-killer, that 6 and 11 o’clock news every night. I did that for 16 years and I was sick to death of it. . . . That probably has been the cause of more alcoholism among newscasters than anything else. With those four hours to kill (between broadcasts), you naturally gravitate to a bar somewhere. And the next thing you know, you’re drinking quite a bit. Not so much now, but in those days I know all of us were drinking quite a bit.”
His daughter Bonnie, 16, a Notre Dame High School student, unknowingly played a role in Keene’s quitting the booze. “One night, when Bonnie was still 10 or 11, I came home after having a snout full and I was having a little trouble getting in the door. I got to thinking, ‘Geez, if the kid wakes up, would I be proud to have her see me like this?’ In the back of my mind I said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
The moment of truth came later when Keene was hospitalized for a staph infection. He discovered in the hospital that he could get to sleep without a drink and without much trauma. (Due to complications from this illness, Keene later underwent brain surgery and still has a tube implanted in his skull to relieve excess cranial fluid.)
Until then, Keene felt he had some good personal and professional excuses for his vice. At one time, he estimated, three women were running around the valley with his last name.
No less unsettling for Keene than his marriages were the changes in the TV weather racket. A split-up was imminent there as well. “It stopped being fun for me around 1972 when they brought in all the electronic gimmicks. See, TV people say, ‘It’s got to be visual.’ Well, I just stood up there with a map behind me and pointed at it. I loved that.”
But a man who has survived 44 years in broadcasting has had to exhibit some adaptive qualities. Keene’s impact on traffic reporting, for example, largely is due to his personal style, partly a carry-over from sports announcing one in Denver early in his career. “This isn’t quite the thrill of the sports racket, but it’s close,” said Keene, comparing the freeways to a free-for-all football field and an alternate route to an end run. “It’s my panacea for whatever withdrawal symptoms I had when I got out of sports.”
Keene recalled that “KMPC wrote the book on traffic in this town,” referring to “Captain” Max Schumacher as the “granddaddy of it all.” Schumacher, an airborne KMPC traffic reporter who died in the line of duty several years ago, was the first to attempt to recruit a skeptical Keene into traffic reporting as “the coming thing.”
KNX radio’s impact on traffic reporting owes much to Keene’s authoritative and urgent delivery, reported from his tiny, windowless booth just above and behind the KNX news anchor team.
Surrounded by radio scanners, he tunes in the Highway Patrol, several fire departments and most competing traffic reporters. Using a portable TV, he monitors local commercial broadcasts. Teletype machines click out bulletins from the National Weather Service, Caltrans and Metro Traffic. On a workhorse 1930s Royal typewriter, Keene keeps a running log--much of it in code--of significant incidents as reports come in. These abbreviated notes are his only guide when he goes on the air.
One relatively calm morning, Keene picked up a CHP report of a motorcycle down on Pacific Coast Highway at Guernsey Avenue. He checked and rechecked his wall and desk maps to pinpoint the location. In his initial report, he labeled it an injury accident. He followed up with a call to the CHP: “Ruben, where the hell is Guernsey? I’ve never heard of it before.”
Keene soon learned that the Malibu-area accident had been fatal. “Damn, I missed that,” he said. He was still feverishly tracking down details when airborne reporter Donna Dower checked in to relay her location for the next fast-approaching bulletin. “I didn’t hear you, Donna. I was checking out a fatal. Where are you?”
The phone rang again and Keene missed Dower’s response. She went on the air without touching home base and contradicted an earlier report by Keene that the westbound San Bernardino Freeway was blocked by an accident. Keene cringed. “Oooh, don’t say that , Donna,” he said.
“Motorists generally know that you’re working with a less-than-perfect system. I’ve had people call and just chew me out because they got caught up in traffic. But I explain that I didn’t know about it until they called.”
Keene said that he relies heavily on a network of about 50 volunteer stringers who alert him, increasingly by mobile phone, to traffic conditions as far away as Lake Arrowhead and Tejon Pass. “As a matter of fact, on a really busy day most of my information comes from tipsters.”
“I’m no different from anyone else who drives the freeways,” he said. “I hate it when I’m stuck in traffic. I feel sorry for the commuter, the guy whose livelihood depends on that strip of pavement, who’s got to drive 40 miles to work every day and home or he doesn’t make a living. Now, that’s a part of his life I’d like to see flow smoothly.”
The earnestness of Keene’s intentions are not lost on his competition. At rival KFWB, general manager David Graves crowned Keene “a Los Angeles institution” whose credibility derives primarily from “his ability to express concern for the beleaguered motorist.”
That concern is also the basis for Keene’s often light-hearted approach. “The majority of people who are stuck in traffic can do nothing about it. They’re just stuck. So then you stop being a reporter and you start being something of an entertainer--good, bad or indifferent.”